Lesson 4 - Color Mixing Strategies for Light Colors

Mixing and matching — that’s what we painters do.

Generally speaking, human beings are attracted to harmonious and coherent things. This is especially true in art and in painting. Most of us will naturally lean towards paintings that have consistent color patterns.

As painters, we’d want to be more relatable to our audience without compromising on our creativity. With that being said, how do we give our paintings a more consistent look?

The answer to that is a concept in color we call Saturation.

What is saturation?

Saturation in color describes its purity. In other words, it is the extent of its intensity. When artists want to desaturate or mute a color, they’d want a color to be less than saturated – they’d dull it down a bit

Desaturated or Muted colors are essentially grayed or dulled colors or colors that have low chroma or saturation — in other words, they are the opposite of vivid colors.

Saturation vs. Value

In our last lessons, we learned what value is and what it does. Now, we add the saturation concept to our quiver.

Saturation is different from value. While value focuses on how dark or how light a color is, saturation addresses the vividness of a color, how pure or dull the pigment appears.

With that in mind, as painters, we should look at saturation with how it relates to the colors it sits beside.

Why should we saturate?

As we get more into painting, we’ll notice that It is rare that we use a paint color, fully saturated, right out of the tube. We’re always adding and mixing more colors to it.

Because our subjects are always affected by light and shadow, we painters rely on muting to give our colors a more realistic effect. Normally, painters would want to amend or desaturate a color to match your subject — be more consistent.

Another reason as to why painters use muted colors is that vivid colors tend to overwhelm those around them. Vivid colors are quintessential bright colors. And too much brightness can be tiring to look at.

Here’s an example:

In the picture above you can see that both the colors I used are vivid and saturated. Consequently, because of their close proximity, it looks jarring and harsh.

However, if we desaturate the background, the subject (in this case, the green) will pop out more. That’s one way saturation can affect your paintings.

Usually, painters would want to keep our subjects more saturated than the background. If we apply destaturation or muting to our paintings, we’ll have more control on what the viewer sees. In other words, we can be better at emphasizing what we want.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871

Take a look at Whistler’s Mother — an excellent example on how muting is used. Whistler’s Mother’s face is much more saturated compared to the wall behind her. Consequently, it forces the viewer’s eyes to instantly lock on the head.

So how do we start desaturating?

In our past lessons, we learned all about value and how it can help you create more realistic paintings.

In lesson 4 of our comprehensive painting workshop we’re going to learn how to use desaturation as a tool to make our colors more consistent and, ultimately, to create more realistic eye-leading paintings. The full lesson includes three templates that help the artists get to know the essential colors needed for saturation.

Check out module 4 here: https://onlinepaintingworkshop.com/

Here’s the gist of what you’ll experience:

Part 1: Cadmium Yellow Light and Ochre Yellow Pale

When we start painting, we’ll quickly realize that colors right out of the tube look, for a lack of a better term, fabricated. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the two colors.

When using the template the workshop provides, we instantly see how Cadmium Yellow Light is rich, strong and opaque and has a medium value compared to Cadmium Lemon. Cadmium Yellow is also warmer than Cadmium Yellow Lemon. The former is also warmer than the latter.

You’ll also find that if you add white to Cadmium Yellow Lemon, you’ll get the brightest color you can have on your palette.

Another thing you’ll instantly notice is that Yellow Ochre Pale is a golden, earthy and warm color. It works beautifully to darken your light colors or lighten your dark colors. Yellow Ochre Pale is also great for making those natural greens. Yellow Ochre Pale is great for making those natural greens.

In this first template, we use Transparent-Oxide to desaturate our Yellows.

Keep in mind that the main goal of desaturation is to match the colors — not just to emphasize specific spots on the painting. Transparent-Oxide brown is great when we combine it with our Yellows. It takes away that harsh brightness that can make our eyes sore — without compromising the essence of the Yellow. What we’re trying to instill to our students here is the intricate process of desaturating first before mixing white to lighten.

Transparent-Oxide Brown is very flexible and the templates in this module helps us get to know its potential. When using this kind of brown, we notice how it suggests a subtle but assertive movement to darker hues.

Part 2: Cadmium Orange

In the second part, we’ll use Cadmium Orange as our main color and what we’ll use to desaturate here is its complementary color, Cobalt Blue.

What are complementary colors?

In short, complementary colors are two colors that are on the opposite sides of the color wheel.

As artists, knowing which colors complement the other is important – it helps us be more decisive in choosing what colors to use to desaturate or dull a color. Complementary colors, when mixed together, can make each other appear brighter or darker – depending on what you’re going for.

But for the sake of this lesson, we use complementary colors to desaturate.

Again, we should always keep in mind that when we mute colors, we would want them to match our subject. Using colors that complement each other will help with the matching since the color’s nature would automatically be pleasing to our eyes.

In this part of the lesson, we’ll notice that Cadmium Orange is bright and warm. It has a medium value and is opaque.

Cobalt Blue, being the complementary color of orange helps contain its brightness and warmth. When mixed together, they create this dark, comfortingly-ominous color. But when we compare that color to orange, it can suggest that the dark is definitely Orange.

That’s the beauty of desaturating with complementary colors. When used in a painting, it can create seamless effects – harmonious transitions from one color to another while suggesting the dominant hue all throughout.

Part 3: Viridian

We all know how greens are frequently used in most paintings. From beautiful landscapes to still-lives and botanicals. But have you ever noticed that greens tend to look harsh and fabricated right out the bottle?

Here, we’ll take a look at how yellows can help with that. But first, we have to know why yellow is a great choice in this situation.

Remember, our goal here is to mute colors to match the subject — not just desaturating for the sake of it.

It’s basically a well-known fact that yellow and blue make green. However, what most people don’t know is that Yellow and Green are next to each other in the color wheel. Colors that are next to each other in the color wheel should have an analogous relationship. What that means is that those colors, when used together, create this soothing effect.

Let’s take a look at how different Yellows react to Viridian

Cadmium Lemon Yellow is a strong opaque yellow that, when mixed with cool greens like Viridian, make a Lime Green — a brighter, but not harsher, new color.

Next is Cadmium Yellow Light. It’s a very bright mix for Viridian. When combined together, it can make your greens warm and sunny.

And finally, Cadmium Yellow Deep, an Orange-based yellow. This, when mixed with greens like Viridian, will give you that common leaf or tree-based color.

When we mix Viridian with any of these yellows, we’ll get a distinctive green that’s more natural. Unlike viridian, these natural colors are more usable in our paintings.

The next step is to now mix our new, natural-looking greens with Transparent Oxide Red.

Transparent Oxide Red is strong and functions similarly with Transparent-Oxide Brown. Using a little Transparent-Oxide Red can make our greens have a warmer and more earthy tone.

Something to remember when using Transparent-Oxide Brown or Cadmium Red is that the amounts you use to desaturate colors depend on the saturation of the color itself.

A stronger color will need more of the brown or red to really have a noticeable effect. A less intense color is more sensitive to the same. After adding Transparent-Oxide Red, we can add white to find the values of our color.

We encourage you to experiment as much as you can with these colors and make color notes from time to time. Don’t be afraid to play around on your palette and remember, no color mixture is absolute. That’s the beauty of painting. You’ll constantly discover new consistencies and new combinations that you wouldn’t think of initially.

The lesson we are trying to instill onto our students here is that before adding white to the look for values, we should desaturate a color to match it with our subject. The better we are at matching the colors, the more harmonious our paintings will be.

In painting, there are a lot of methods you can use to get to a specific end. The more you experiment with the colors, the better and more comfortable you’ll be.